Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Colombians pay price for our comfort and complicity

Coal extracted from mines in Colombia has been dubbed "Colombian blood coal" because of assassinations of union leaders and violent displacements of communities at the country's coal mines.

Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for people active in trade unions; 2,510 trade union leaders have been murdered in the last 10 years.

NB Power's Belledune plant burns coal produced in the Colombian Cerrejón mine.

Approximately 16 per cent of the power in our province is generated from Cerrejón coal.

On March 22, Adolfo González Montes, a worker at Cerrejón and union leader with SINTRACARBON (the National Union of Coal Mine Workers), was tortured and killed at his home.

He's survived by his wife and four small children.

Other union leaders and their family members live in fear as unknown people prowl around their homes and they receive threatening phone calls.

In many cases where the perpetrator has been identified, government-supported paramilitary organizations, the armed forces or the police have been found responsible.

The Colombian government's failure to act on such crimes allows the perpetrators to kill trade unionists with impunity.

Despite knowledge of Colombia's deplorable human rights track record and opposition from the Canadian labor movement, Canada is in the process of forging a free trade agreement with Colombia.

In 2006, SINTRA CARBON took the brave and noble move to support the communities affected by their employer. The union included the communities' demands for collective compensation in their bargaining proposals with the company.

The union investigated the Cerrejón mine's effects on communities in November 2006.

Union member Jairo Quiroz described what he saw: "Their fundamental rights have been violated. These communities lack the most minimal conditions necessary for a decent life. They seem to belong to the living dead."

José Julio Pérez, formerly a farmer in Tabaco, Colombia, visited New Brunswick in March 2006.

Today, Tabaco and its homes, farms, church and school do not exist.

All that lived in Tabaco was destroyed for the Cerrejón mine in August 2001.

During the bloody displacement, some of Pérez's neighbours sustained serious and enduring injuries after being attacked by police.

Since the development of Cerrejón in 1982, indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities in La Guajira have been forcibly displaced from their lands.

Traditional agriculture-based livelihoods have been destroyed with the loss of land and industrial contamination. More communities face similar fates with the planned expansion of the world's largest open-pit coal mine.

Coal extracted from Cerrejón is exclusively exported to meet the energy demands of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Massachusetts, while many people displaced by Cerrejón have no electricity.

While Cerrejón's owners, Xstrata, BHP Billiton and AngloAmerican were welcomed by the Colombian state, local indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities located on top of coal reserves did not have a say in the development or destruction of their communities. Atrocities include imposed poverty, brutal intimidation, beatings and the prospect of being killed.

Debbie Kelly, an RCMP forensics officer active with her labour union in Halifax, is selling hand-woven bags made by La Guajira women as an urgent fundraiser for the affected communities.

After visiting the communities around the Cerrejón coal mine in 2006, she wrote: "Some only eat every three days and for the smiling little children, it is hard to take. Even though their little body is racked in open sores from contaminated water, they don't cry."

As SINTRACARBON mourns the loss of Adolfo González Montes, they call on Colombian state agencies to immediately investigate and bring to justice those responsible for his murder.

SINTRACARBON is also requesting protection for union and community leaders.

Concerned citizens are asking NB Power and the New Brunswick government to pressure the Colombian government to ensure the rule of law and an end to the impunity for crimes against union leaders, human rights defenders and the civilian population.

NB Power and the New Brunswick government are also being asked to establish a human rights policy in their purchasing contracts.

The Fredericton Peace Coalition ( and the Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network ( are currently organizing Colombian solidarity efforts.

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